Sermon: Sunday, August 7, 2016: Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Genesis 15:1-6  +  Psalm 33:12-22  +  Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16  +  Luke 12:32-40

maxresdefaultThe world is full of heroes. That’s true every week, but this week they’ve really been on display. Yusra Mardini, the 18-year-old Syrian refugee who, together with her sister, pushed a boat carrying twenty people through the sea for three hours, saving their lives and is now competing in the Olympics under the Olympic banner. Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the parents of Army Captain Humayun Khan (himself a hero), Pakistani immigrants who came to the United States seeking opportunity for their family and ended up at the center of national politics for the last two weeks following Khizr’s impassioned speech denouncing the rhetoric of racism and islamophobia infecting our nation’s political life.


Khizr and Ghazala Khan at the Democratic National Convention

A young refugee and two immigrants thrust onto the international stage because of who they are and what they have done — but also, I think, because we are hungry for stories of heroism right now. We are weary and battered by a season in our life together filled with stories of police violence and political cowardice. We are soul-sick from watching the weekly polls tell us how cynical and skeptical we have become about the possibility of meaningful change.  We, who have so much, wrestle with a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. Then we hear the story of Yusra Mardini jumping out of her boat and literally pitting her body’s strength against the relentlessness of the sea. We watch an unknown Muslim man stand up before the entire nation and proclaim his love for a country that has not loved him and his family half as well, but for which he and his wife gave their son.

“They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, God has prepared a city for them.” (Heb. 11:13-16)

The Letter to the Hebrews is full of memorable turns of phrase from the description of faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1) to the “great cloud of witnesses” (12:1) that surround us. If the verses I’ve just read are less familiar, they’re no less full of poetry and power. In fact, I almost named the sermon series that begins today and will continue through the month of August, “A Better Country,” but decided that at this point in the presidential campaign it would be heard too narrowly as a focus on electoral politics, when what the author is really talking about is more akin to what Parker Palmer has termed “courage” in his book “Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit.” 

Parker dedicated that book to Christina Taylor Green, the 10 year-old girl who was shot and killed five years ago in the same event at which Congresswoman “Gabby” Giffords of Arizona was also shot; and to Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, better known as the “four little girls” who died in the racist bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama during the Civil Rights movement fifty-three years ago. In his dedication, he writes,

“When we forget that politics is about weaving a fabric of compassion and justice on which everyone can depend, the first to suffer are the most vulnerable among us — our children, the elderly, the mentally ill, the poor, and the homeless. As they suffer, so does the integrity of our democracy.”

That’s what draws me to the image of “a better country,” and what also ultimately moved me to title this series, “Sight Unseen” — because what we are laboring for is ultimately something we have yet to see: a homeland here on this earth of which all people are equally residents, equally citizens, equally honored and cared for, “a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” (Heb. 11:16a)

But it is exhausting, longing and laboring for this country to come into view. It is tempting to look back at the lands we have known and to convince ourselves that the world as it is is sufficient or, at least, the best we can hope for. Then we hear Yusra’s story, and we imagine her muscles freezing up in the cold sea as she pushes her fellow refugees toward that better country, the one she has never seen. Then we hear Khizr and Ghazala Khan, and see Khizr brandishing his pocket edition of the United States Constitution in the face of calls to ban an entire religious community from entering this nation, and we imagine the faith it must take to hold fast to promises made but not yet kept.

That is the heart of the Letter to the Hebrews, it is a letter to people who have not yet seen the promises of God fulfilled, who wonder if they will ever be kept. It is a word of encouragement to worn down people, a reminder that we have only come this far by faith. It is a roll call of the saints, the heroes, the ones like Abraham and Sarah, Yusra, Khizr and Ghazala, who left behind all they had known and fixed their eyes on the stars to guide them into a future filled with hope. It is a call to faith in things we have only hoped for, and conviction in sights as yet unseen (11:1).

And now, if you’ll let me, I want to make this all a bit more personal and talk for just a few moments about us as a congregation in light of this word from scripture. There is so much in this Letter to the Hebrews that makes me think of the journey we’ve been on for the last ten years. The setting out without knowing entirely where we’d end up. The power of procreation at a late age manifested as a congregation made up of elderly people who saw wave after wave of young adults and even younger children begin to fill in the empty pews. The promise of a future filled with hope set alongside the constant exhortation to never give up. There’s so much in this letter that feels familiar to me when I think of the distance we have come. I’m tempted to place our story in the background, as one more example among many, a word of encouragement for other congregations, other communities of faith preparing to leave behind the known past for the promised future.

But this letter is still for us. This letter is calling out to us from history, urging us to cast our lot fully with the “strangers and foreigners on the earth” (Heb. 11:13). To, as Jesus puts it, “sell your possessions, and give alms” and “make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven.” (Lk. 12:33)

There is a convergence of conversations and actions happening in our congregation and in the communities that surround us that I believe is about to set us on a new course just as adventurous as the one we have been on these last ten years. Having already sold our chief possession, the building that had housed us for a century, we are now considering anew what it means for us to “give alms.” For the last six months the Council has been deliberating with one another about the practical, ethical, and theological implications of the fact that we have gone, in a very short time, from being rich in land and poor in cash to being practically itinerant but carrying with us an enormous amount of money. Over the last few months the Social Justice committee has joined this conversation, sharing with the Council their intention to move us from a more shallow monthly focus on benevolent giving to a strategy of 6-month campaigns designed to deepen our engagement with partner organizations working in our community to build that better country, the one none of us has ever fully seen.


We are beginning with Center for Changing Lives, an organization that grew out of Humboldt Park Social Services, which itself grew out of Humboldt Park United Methodist Church, a member of the Logan Square Ecumenical Alliance just two blocks north of us here on Mozart St.  Center for Changing Lives provides financial coaching and employment assistance to families and individuals in our neighborhood struggling to make it in today’s economy. As we learn more about their work and are shaped by it we’ll not only be looking for ways to enhance their mission, but will benefit directly ourselves from their “Just Financials” curriculum, a powerful tool for helping us develop a shared vocabulary for connecting our values as Christian people to our actions with regard to our wealth, taking Jesus’ encouragement to “sell your possessions and give alms” seriously enough to really ask how our relationship to God is shaping our relationship to what we earn and what we own.

But stewardship of wealth is only one aspect of our vocation as baptized people. As we enter this new phase of our life together we will be talking more openly, not only in worship but in small groups with one another, about the ways we choose to steward the gifts of our lives. Whether at work or at home, with family or friends, how do we live out our baptisms? How do we live into that vocation, so that our whole life reflects our relationship to the God of life and love and liberation? We’ll be listening for signs of the Holy Spirit’s work in each other, deepening our capacities for love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).


Pr. Bruce Ray standing in the center of the labyrinth at the Kimball Avenue Church “urban oasis” at last month’s LSEA summer garden party.

Which means that we’ll be telling each other stories. From the testimonies that have been a growing part of our Sunday morning worship to the sorts of story-telling we saw at the ecumenical alliance’s Garden Party last month at which members of our separate congregations told stories about how they had come to Chicago, stories of migration from Honduras and Puerto Rico and Latvia. Stories filled with the kinds of quiet heroism that brought Yusra Mardini and the Khans to the international stage. Stories that we come to realize populate all our pasts, if we would only take the time to listen.

So we will. We will listen to each other’s stories, in and out of worship, within this congregation and beyond its glass windows. We will listen, and we will grow. We will be experimenting with adding services this fall, not simply because those of us who are already here are feeling a little bit cramped, but because we know there are others in our neighborhood and across our city who are longing for a glimpse of that better country, that city God is already preparing for those who face the future by faith. We will plan for growth and we will embrace it because we are inheritors of the same promise made to Abraham and Sarah, that their descendants would be more numerous than the stars in the sky. Those descendants, who are Jewish and Christian and Muslim, whose rich diversity points us beyond Abraham and Sarah to all of humanity, are our people and we are theirs in ways we know to be true even if we have never seen it lived out perfectly. But we see that future coming from a distance and we welcome it (Heb. 11:13).



Sermon: Sunday, January 17, 2016: 2nd Sunday after Epiphany

Texts: Isaiah 62:1-5  +  Psalm 36:5-10  +  1 Corinthians 12:1-11  +  John 2:1-11

This morning we’re beginning a series of three testimonies by members of the congregation loosely organized around the theme “Refugees, Immigrants, Aliens and Foreigners,” that takes the Epiphany theme of God’s light to the nations and intentionally flips the script so that we don’t always imagine that it is we ourselves who bear the light of Christ as we move out into the world — but that we also have experiences to share with one another about what it has felt like to be the foreigners, the strangers, the sojourners whom God has reached out to through others.

It’s also the end of series of three scenes from scripture that encompass the festival of Epiphany: the visit of the magi, the baptism of our Lord and, finally today, the wedding at Cana. Each of these stories is told as a way of unfolding the meaning of God’s revelation in the person of Jesus. He is the infant sovereign whom other nations come to bow before. He is the beloved child of God, revealed in the waters of the river Jordan. He is the miracle worker who gladdens the feast, bringing joy at long last.

There’s one other series of three mixed in with the rest, a less symbolic one that owes its length to other features of the liturgical calendar. This year, beginning this morning, we read three consecutive passages from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that make up the 12th and 13th chapters. It’s helpful to note that while the lectionary generally assigns readings from the epistles intended to deepen our interpretation of the gospel passage, for these three weeks during the Time after Epiphany the passages stand independent of the gospel. I share this with you because I’ll be preaching on First Corinthians for the next three weeks, and so that your overworked subconscious minds can take a rest from trying to force a correspondence. There are, I’m sure, points of theological and poetic resonance between Paul’s meditation on the gifts of the spirit and John’s story of the wedding at Cana … but I’m not looking for them.

I’ve actually been eager to get to these chapters of First Corinthians for a while, since last fall even. As we prepared to take leave of our historic home, we all were filled with questions about what might come next for our community. Who would we be, who would we become, once we were no longer defined by the parameters of the building that had shaped our life together for over a century? Which of the gifts God has planted in us were actually planted in that soil, and which could be transported and repotted? How would we order our life together to reflect our sense of God’s vision for this congregation, and for the wider community in which we’re situated? How would we align our assets with our values?

But we needed a rest. After months and years of difficult conversations and hard work, we needed a break from one-on-ones and straw polls and town halls. We needed to let our minds and our spirits catch up with what our bodies were already experiencing as the nights stretched out to their absolute longest. We needed to rest in worship that assured us that God, Emmanuel, is with us; that there is light that is not overcome; that God’s dwelling place is among God’s people, wherever they are.

Now we are coming to the end of that rest. It has been almost three months since we moved into this first interim location, and already for many people it is beginning to feel quite comfortable (which is a great relief), but this is not our permanent home. This is more like a laboratory for those who think like scientists, or a practice room for those who’ve studied music. This is our black box theatre for those who dabbled in drama. This is a place to study and learn, like a high school or a college — a place you invest in and even come to love, always knowing that one day you will leave.

Those metaphors of lab rooms, practice rooms and experimental theatre may be more readily relatable for younger members of the congregation, recent graduates, of which St. Luke’s enjoys a larger share than is usual for Lutheran congregations where the median age of churchgoers is 58. This, the presence of so many young adults, is a great gift for so many reasons, but for one reason in particular: young adults are at a stage in life during which it is completely natural, even essential, to be asking the question we all spend the rest of our lives trying to answer: what’s next?

After years of having parents or other caring adults on hand to wake us up, drive us to school, stock the refrigerator, and listen to our stories: what’s next? After years of classwork, hundreds of books read, tests taken, papers written: what’s next? After internships and externships, practicums and placements, what’s next? As the poet Mary Oliver puts it in her poem “The Summer Day” — “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

It’s the question that irritates graduates and those about to graduate with its frequency, even as it makes them sweat with uncertainty. It is the question of purpose that requires each of us to take stock of our gifts and aptitudes and then to make a public declaration about what we intend to do with them. Only the truly audacious or the foolish say too much, because what might happen if we put it out there for the world to hear that we aim to write the great American novel, or finally find the cure, or take public office, or right the enduring wrong … and then fail? Or worse yet, what if we simply don’t know?

I wonder sometimes if we don’t treat our churches, our congregations, like little schools because we don’t want to face another graduation. We don’t know how we would answer the question, if anyone were to ask, “what is it you plan to do with the wild and precious community you have created here?” So instead we imagine it to be school without end. Faith formation without Christian vocation.

At the time when Paul was writing to the community in Corinth, they were struggling with great conflict and deep divisions in the congregation, so his words were intended to remind them that though they each were significantly different from each other, the source of their different gifts is the same God and the purpose of those gifts is the common good (1 Cor. 12:7). We are blessed in that, for now, we aren’t struggling with the same struggles as the Corinthians. There is a spirit of hard won unity, confidence and pride in our congregation that is, itself, a gift of the Spirit.

But, like all gifts, that one comes with its own difficulties. It is too easy, when things are going well, to make the preservation of that experience the highest concern. Whether it be fear of falling back into a more difficult past, or anxiety about an unknown future, the instinct to preserve what we have is one of the greatest impediments to establishing a vision for mission, a direction for the future. The value of our relationships here can’t be hoarded, it has to be spent on projects that are worthy of our faith and costly in their commitments.

So, as I said, I’ve been itching for this conversation to begin, and it is almost time. We have put major projects to rest, and now there are new conversations to be had. For a while I’ve been imagining that this year would be a year of strategic planning — though I’ve been told that term feels too corporate. So, let me suggest another one which is rooted in scripture and the sacraments: vocational discernment.

In our baptism, each of us is called into lives of Christian discipleship for the sake of the common good. Baptism also creates a new, “corporate” reality, in which we come to realize that our lives are lived together, not in isolation. This means we work out the answers to Mary Oliver’s question together. “What is it you plan to do…” becomes “what is is we plan to do” with these gifts of life, and friendship, the gospel of freedom of liberation, and the means of grace?

Now is not the time to mumble some half-shaped answer about life after graduation. Now is the time for a clear-eyed assessment of the gifts God has given into our care for the sake of the common good and bold action taken together.



Sermon: Sunday, March 22, 2015: Fifth Sunday in Lent

Texts: Jeremiah 31:31-34  +  Psalm 51:1-12  +  Hebrews 5:5-10  +  John 12:20-33

I’ve been thinking a lot about vows recently. Eighty-eight days and counting ’til Kerry and I get married. For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, ’til death do us part. They are terrifying promises.

They’re terrifying because I’ve seen the spectrum of better and worse, rich and poor, sickness and health. I know those things happen to all sorts of people. People enter into marriage not knowing what kind of future awaits them, and they promise to stay with each other through whatever hits the windshield as they race through the days appointed to them on this earth.

And it’s not that being single exempts anyone from the full range of possible futures, better or worse, it’s just that we don’t have to make promises to stick with ourselves. We’re already stuck with ourselves (and don’t we know it?). But in marriage we make a promise to stick with someone else, even when it would be far easier to go our separate ways.

I say all this knowing there are plenty of divorced people in the room, knowing that for some of you divorce saved your life, or your health. I say this knowing there are many who have been barred from making marriage promises in sanctuaries and court houses, and have until very recently felt locked out of the covenant of marriage. This isn’t a meditation on the sanctity of marriage, but on the weight of promises made in public, promises made to yourself and others. Promises made to God.

These promises terrify because they impose limits on the self for the sake of the greater whole. While it might be easier, less expensive, strategically advantageous to dissolve a covenant when the going gets rough, our promises keep us in place, working through the hard times, the worse, the poorer, the sickness, for the sake of the unit of community larger than any one person in it: the marriage, the family, the congregation, the body of Christ.

Four weeks ago we welcomed Ryan Coffee to a period of preparation for his baptism, just as generations of Christians have done going back to the time of the early church. A couple weeks ago Kerry and I had Ryan and Rachel over to our home to share a meal and talk about baptism in its scriptural and historical context. As we studied the ancient process of preparation for baptism — which involved three years of study and mentoring by older members of the community followed by an intense Lenten period of fasting and daily prayer all before a catechumen ever joined the congregation in receiving the Lord’s Supper — we recognized that our contemporary culture, including congregational life, just doesn’t support that kind of personal sacrifice in preparation for promise-making. We slip in and out of states of commitment, rather than preparing to make and keep covenants.

The models we do have for extensive preparation before making promises may be the work that doctors and lawyers do to prepare for vocations that require an oath. The lengthy process of preparation to practice law or medicine, the intense academic work paired with models of apprenticeship and supervised activity mean that by the time those professionals take their vows, they have already practiced self-sacrifice for the sake of the good of the whole, the guild of which they become a part, and the society that guild exists to serve.

Baptism is a vocation drenched in promises. In it we invite those who desire to live a Christian life to notice, name and resist all the forces in this world that rebel against the nature and character of God — to set themselves at odds with a world that privileges profit over people, that preaches scarcity in the midst of profligate abundance, that cultivates fear between people created to live in community. We ask them to do this knowing that it will cost them something, and that in some cases it may cost them everything. That’s right. In baptism we call one another to die, and to die over and over again, to patterns of life designed to support the individual at the expense of the community — except, in this case, we’re not balancing the needs of the one against the needs of the many, but the needs of the whole, the needs of all. A call to love not only our friends and our neighbors, but our enemies.

In the waters of baptism we say that the old self drowns, and that we die and rise with Christ. This is very much like what Jesus himself says in this morning’s gospel reading, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24) The covenant we make in baptism is not just about letting go of the bad to embrace the good, but about a lifelong practice of learning to let go of that which we may individually value and cherish in order to support what is needed for the good of the whole.

CommunityFor the last two years our Church Council has been reading and reflecting on a book by Peter Block titled Community: The Structures of Belonging as a way of thinking about how to strengthen and sustain our own community even as some of the structures that have supported our life together as a congregation for the last century begin to change. In the book he talks about the six conversations we need to have to build a trust-worthy community, conversations of invitation, possibility, ownership, dissent, commitment and gifts. At our Council meeting this past week we talked a lot about the commitment conversation. Block writes that “to be committed means you are willing to make a promise with no expectation of return; a promise void of barter and not conditional on another’s action. In the absence of this, you are constantly in the position of reacting to the choices of others. The cost of constantly reacting,” he writes, “is increased cynicism.”

As we continue to gather as a congregation in meetings like the one we’ll be having here in the sanctuary after worship, we need to keep having these six conversations with each other, we need to keep balancing conversations about invitation and possibility with conversations about ownership and commitment. We need to inquire of ourselves and one another how our Christian identity is a commitment and not a contract, how it is an invitation to die to ourselves, over and over, for the sake of the world. We need to ask what kinds of activities best support us in making those promises and keeping those promises, what patterns of gathering work best to remind us of who we are in light of God’s grace, a covenant of love that sees us in light of God’s irresistible future instead of our own irretrievable past. We need to wonder together what kind of tree might sprout from the seed planted in the earth that is us, the body of Christ, broken for the life of the world. What kind of difference we want to make in a world hungry for the fruit we might bear.

In light of all that God has committed to us, what will we commit to each other?